Soul of a Nation: Art in The Age of Black Power - Weekend 101

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Weekend 101

Weekend 101: Soul of a Nation: Art In The Age of Black Power

Soul of a Nation: Art In The Age of Black Power @ The Tate Modern.


This is an exhibition that may appeal most to people who lived through the times, and to a younger generation attracted by its subject matter (there were plenty of these on the day of our visit). Either way, it is a show as much about education as a reflection of the events of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. In a show about such a recent and particularly emotional subject, there is a risk of seeing the depiction of shocking and unpleasant images. Although this could easily be anticipated, some of the more unpalatable events of the era really hit home – for instance such pieces as Melvin Edwards’ barbed wire and chain sculpture.


One of the most interesting themes of the show is how abstract art fitted into the Black Power movement. On the walls of one room this was printed: “Figurative art doesn’t represent blackness any more than a non-narrative media-orientated painting, like what I do.” [Sam Gilliam] And the question, ‘Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work?’ [Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, curators] is posed in the accompanying exhibition guide.

These are powerful statements, the artists’ interpretations of the movement portrayed through Abstract art that one never usually associates with ‘political art’. One room, filled with abstract pieces such as a large portentous black object (‘Self’ by Martin Puryear) and ‘Homage to Malcom’ (by Jack Whitten) – a triangular canvas, in part painted using an Afro comb instead of standard paintbrush or palette knife – was not what we were expecting to walk into, but perfectly summed up a journey of discovery of the Black Power movement’s influence on art.  There are moments of joy, particularly in the bright, energetic paintings of artists like Carolyn Lawrence (painting – Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free), which pick up the excitement and enthusiasm of those who were  involved affected by the movement. It is easy to imagine the excitement of the time – it was the first chance to speak out for themselves and give voice to the oppression of their human rights they had suffered over many generations. It is no surprise that this vitality has translated to the canvas.

For a Caucasian viewer, the feeling after leaving the show was how little many of the general public know about the artistic output of the Black Power movement – and how Tate Modern is on a mission to educate us. It is terrific that the Tate put on an exhibition like this, focused on celebrating black artists. Does this mean black art is really entering the mainstream Establishment?



Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is open at the Tate Modern until October 22nd 2017.